You Need Rhythm to Dance!

Most of my blogs are inspired by my students and this one is no exception. This morning’s inspiration was a question about rhythm. Rhythm is defined as “a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound”, but to understand rhythm we also have to define tempo and beat. Tempo is defined as “the rate or speed of motion or activity; pace”. Beat is defined as “a main accent or rhythmic unit in music”. If your eyes are rolling up into the back of your head already, don’t despair. In short: rhythm tells you the speed of the beat.  A good dancer or rider can feel these things without ever knowing the definition! ;)

Those of you who have taken lessons or clinics with me or have read the comments on my judge’s sheets are probably familiar with me saying things like: “horse needs steady rhythm or rhythm varies or irregular rhythm”. These comments usually make a lot of sense to the rider for they can feel the unsteadiness of the horse, but how do you achieve a steady rhythm with your horse, why is it important and what does it tell you about the horse?

In Cowboy Dressage our goal is always a harmonious partnership with our horse through soft feel, whether it is on the trail or in the show arena and rhythm (tempo and beat) is a very important part of this. Think of a horse that speeds up or slows down every couple of steps, short steps, quick rushed steps or maybe even irregular, uneven steps. What do you see? Probably a tense horse, one that is unbalanced or even unsound. A lack of balance can be due to the rider being unbalanced and giving conflicting aids or because the horse hasn’t developed the muscles yet for a steady rhythm with a rider. Now think of a beautiful harmonious ride that you have observed and think how the horse was moving. Steady, rhythmic, soft and without tension should come to mind!

Each gait has it’s own beat, 4 in the walk, 2 in the jog and 3 in the lope. The 2 beat jog is the easiest gait to start establishing a steady rhythm. Think of a metronome or an old grandfather’s clock. Tick-tock, tick-tock. That’s how your horse’s legs should move. Count in your head 1-2, 1-2 or tick-tock, tick-tock, if that works better ;)  in rhythm with the horse’s stride and see how long it takes until you have to say it quicker and quicker (or maybe slower and slower) and then of course work back towards that steady 1-2  tick-tock, that you are trying to achieve. Steady rhythm is particularly important if you are riding a gaited horse, because there are additional gaits, the difference between the gaits is more gliding and the gaited horse can easily shift from one into the other and the slightest loss of balance or tension may result in a change of rhythm within the gait.

Steady rhythm is also integrally linked to relaxation. If there is tension or even fear, your horse will not be steady. So when you start working with your horse on creating a steady rhythm, you must first work on relaxation. Start out on a long rein at the walk and let your horse find his natural balance and swing. Then go to the jog, also on a longer rein and posting helps as well. Once your horse has a relaxed and steady 1-2 beat you can start picking up the reins gradually and sitting the jog, being very careful that the rhythm doesn’t change. If it does, just go back to posting or to your relaxed walk until your horse is able to keep the rhythm whether you are on a straight line or on a circle. If you are riding a gaited horse, also start at the walk on the long rein, make sure the walk is a clear 4 beat, not pacey and you are sitting balanced. Then start gaiting, if things start falling apart, go back to the relaxed walk on the long rein and start over. Since riding circles presents additional challenges to most gaited horses, I would suggest practicing this first on the trail or in a very large arena on straight lines. Start practicing keeping the rhythm on a large circle only after it is easy to keep on a straight line. You should be able to slowly increase the amount of time your horse can stay in a steady rhythm, don’t expect too much in the beginning but be consistent in what you are asking. That is the only way your horse will learn. Don’t let him careen around out of balance if you don’t want him to think that is ok! ;)

In closing, watching a horse move, can tell you a lot about his mental state, his level of training, his soundness and how co-operative he is working together with his rider. Since we are looking for a soft, willing, harmonious ride, you can now appreciate why a steady rhythm is so important in your horse’s training. Every time you get on your horse, or on a new horse, one of the first things to check is the horse’s rhythm. Is it irregular? This could be indicative of a soundness issue which of course needs to be addressed right away. Is the rider unbalanced in his seat and throwing the horse of balance or is the horse simply young and not muscled up enough yet? These questions need to be answered at every ride so you can address them correctly and try to fix them. Your Cowboy Dressage trainer or instructor will be able to help you resolve any problems.

As always I welcome comments and questions. Happy Trails! :)